We have spent the last two days diving around Axial Caldera, and it’s easily been my favorite location on this trip. The ocean floor is made up of diverse rock formations from lava flows over time, and the hydrothermal vents reach up from the bottom of the seafloor, making it an incredibly dynamic environment. There is so much more life here, my personal favorites being the spider crabs with their long and spindly legs, and the blobfish with their chubby cheeks and dejected expressions (another student called them the Eeyore’s of the sea).
In addition to our normal work during dives, the Chief Engineer took all of us students on a tour of the engine rooms, and the First Mate on a tour of the bridge. The engine room, though incredibly loud, must be my favorite part of the ship, it is so complex and the engineers must be so knowledgeable about every aspect. It was cool to ask them questions and hear them talk about the machinery that is specific to this ship. The bridge was fascinating as well, but I found it more difficult to stay upright than I expected even on such a calm day, I don’t think I will try to find out what it is like on a rougher day. Because the bridge is the one of the highest points on the ship (for visibility), it is farthest away from the axis of rotation and rotates much more than any other location. This tour was the first, and hopefully last, time I felt seasick during this trip.
With the end of this trip in sight, I am trying to make the most of my remaining time here on the Thompson. Last night was the first time we were able to see stars, so the students on my shift and I took a short trip out to the bow to check them out. It was misty and not entirely clear, but this dulled the lights from the ship and added to the magic specific to being at sea and up at three in the morning.
The past couple of days blur together due to my lack of a sleep schedule, but the hours that I am awake have been filled with new experiences. My favorite of which has been processing water samples collected during the CTD casts. While there are many different things that are measured in these samples, I have helped with measuring oxygen and chlorophyl content. The chemistry involved with this processing is beyond my current knowledge, but I have found it fascinating how samples for each type of data are stored differently. Samples for measuring oxygen are stored in specially designed airtight clear glass bottles, filled completely with water so as not to introduce any extra oxygen into the sample. In contrast, samples for chlorophyl are stored in opaque brown plastic bottles in the refrigerator, where no light or heat may be introduced which would cause chlorophyl levels to increase from where they were when collected.
These differences may seem obvious, but they also make it clear how much time and careful thought has been spent in preparation for this cruise.
As we move to Axial Caldera and towards hydrothermal vents, the dives become much more interesting. Because of the higher temperatures, a greater variety of life can thrive on the ocean floor. After the 24 hours of travel it took to reach this location, I’m not surprised that people are crowded into the control room and around the tv’s on the ship in order to see live footage from ROPOS. The highlight thus far has been a small red octopus curled up on a rock.
Having solidified an idea for my project, using analysis on variance testing to find what makes a significant difference on water visibility at the ocean floor, I have now begun to create a presentation. While I cannot work with the data during my time on the boat due to data restrictions with the Wi-Fi, it has forced me to fully hash out my plan before diving in. It is nice after four very long days on this boat, to feel settled into life here and know that I have begun to find my place. There are many things about being on this boat I did not expect, how dry the central air would make my hands, how difficult it would be to open the watertight doors to the deck, how loud the engine would be during transit, or most importantly, how amazing it would be to be so close to such a unique and remote location.
There is much more to be done now that dives have begun. I had my fist shift last night from 12 to 4 am, which I spent in the ROPOS control room. The jobs for the students on shift are to take photos of the dive activities and ocean life with the camera mounted on the front of ROPOS, as well as log events during the dive.
I definitely enjoy logging events most, as it keeps me engaged over the four hours and feels a lot like taking notes during a lecture. The dives that I have observed have been for cleaning the cable on the deep profilers, which are sensors attached to a cable that runs from a depth of 2900 meters to just about 150. Over the course of a day, they travel up and down the cable, collecting information about the water column.
It’s been interesting to observe the sea life at all levels of the ocean, as these dives require ROPOS to slowly descend almost all the way to the ocean floor. Near the top there are mostly fish and a couple very curious sharks that keep investigating the vehicle. As you descend, life that I would recognize clears out, and is replaced with larvaceans, jellies, and ctenophores, transparent, floating organisms.
On my next shift, we helped to run a CTD cast, a recording of conductivity, temperature, and depth at all points in the water column, and is used to verify the data collected with the deep profilers. The CTD rosette is dropped over the side of the ship and is allowed to fall all the way to the ocean floor, and as it is brought up, the bottles on the sides are closed at varying depths, taking water samples to then be analyzed in a lab. For something more hands on, we were shown how to take these samples once the rosette was back on deck, which was fun in the deliriousness of the last hour of our shift.
Tomorrow we transit to Axial Base, which means the same set of dives at a new location, more motion sickness medication, and new ocean life to see underwater.
This morning we had a short safety briefing and were taken on a tour of the ROPOS control room (where I will spend many hours logging metadata for the dives). After taking (hopefully enough) motion sickness medication, I am feeling very zombie-like and am excited to leave port so there is enough excitement to keep me from crawling back into my bed. Tonight I have my first watch shift and will have to consult the dive plan and make sure I am up to date on what I’ll be seeing.
All of the equipment on this boat is massive, it impressive and equally intimidating to be around a crew of people who are so experienced using all of it. I’m honestly starstruck with ROPOS, the Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science, after learning about it in class last year, to seeing it now. It is far more complex than I could have imagined, with its own crew and crane (making that three? on the ship in total) to lower it over the side of the ship. I am excited to ask questions and become more familiar with the work each of these researchers are doing.
Besides introductions, I have spent time getting lost on the ship (everything looks the same inside) and thinking about what I will work on for my own project. I’m excited to get more familiar with some of the scientists and hear what they have to say about my ideas.